What’s Behind the New Cambodia-Laos Border Crisis?

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What’s Behind the New Cambodia-Laos Border Crisis?

A closer look at an episode in the context of Hun Sen’s wider domestic and foreign policy.

Cambodia – traditionally a political, economic and military minnow – has grabbed the headlines in recent years in the diplomatic realm in the context of its spoiler role with the backing of China. And as the country approaches elections next year, Phnom Penh has been flexing its muscles of late, whether at home when it comes to cracking down on local opposition groups or abroad with some of its neighbors.

At home, the crackdown has been well-documented. Critics like the English language Cambodia Daily have been hit with exorbitant tax bills; industry sources are saying that publications and broadcasters of a similar ilk could follow suit. One Australian documentary maker is in prison charged with spying.

Abroad, the developments tended to be more episodic, though by no means less consequential. Cases run the gamut, from Cambodia’s weakening of ASEAN’s South China Sea position to Phnom Penh’s criticism directed at the United States.

But over the weekend, Prime Minister Hun Sen made international headlines over a much less known international development. He warned Vietnam-friendly Laos that a harsh military response would be ordered unless its northern neighbor pulled about 30 soldiers, almost a platoon, out of a disputed area. Vientiane obliged.

The latest border quarrel is not in the same league as the 2008 conflict around the temple ruins of Preah Vihear, prompted by a Thai decision to send its troops across the border. It was a thoughtless move that won Cambodia international support and played no small role in the nationalist fervor Hun Sen tried to drum up ahead of his re-election that year.

Elections are again in the offing. And that helps explain Hun Sen’s nationalistic zeal – to the point of bullying – when dealing with suspect Lao border incursions as well as anybody else deemed a critic.

All this could not have come at a worse time for the ASEAN, which would have preferred to bask in the self-congratulatory glow of the 50th anniversary of its founding. ASEAN, it should be recalled, was designed not only as a bulwark against the spread of communism as Washington pulled out of South Vietnam in the early 1970s, but also for managing both major powers as well as internal conflicts within the region in the midst of the Cold War.

Hun Sen’s moves – from the weakening of ASEAN’s South China Sea position to the fuss over border issues with Laos – are a reminder that the regional organization still has a lot of work to do in these respects.

To be sure, it is not all for Hun Sen. China’s successful meddling in the affairs of Southeast Asian states, including Cambodia, has played a clear role as well. And there are other ASEAN countries, whether it be the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte or Brunei, that have also played a role in facilitating Hun Sen’s behavior.

And contrary to some of his previously optimistic statements about his longevity, Hun Sen will not be around forever. He has reportedly raised concerns among friends and peers that his health is not what it should be, and, indeed, this is being whispered around in diplomatic corners in an effort to explain his recent belligerent behavior. But one thing is for sure: as Cambodia moves into elections next year, Hun Sen and his government will not shy away from flexing their muscles at home and abroad on issues that they deem central to a victory at the polls.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt